Agent with clients on Concordia tells of crew’s help amid chaos

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The consumer media is awash in recollections by Costa Concordia passengers who say the ship’s crew was almost useless during the evacuation that followed the vessel’s grounding on a rocky reef near the Italian island of Giglio on Jan. 13.

But one set of passengers, clients of a Virtuoso agency in New Mexico, had a very different story to tell.

Alfred Volden, president and managing director of All World Travel in Albuquerque, had two clients who had boarded the ship in Barcelona Jan. 9.

Those clients, Arthur and Alex Beach, told Volden that when they eventually made it onto a lifeboat, after several unsuccessful tries due to overcrowding and general chaos, the vessel’s engine wouldn’t start when it was lowered into the water.

CostaConcordiaPassengers“A crew member from the ship swam to the Beaches’ lifeboat, climbed aboard and was able to get the engine going,” Volden said.

The couple, who were repeat Costa customers and who had booked the cruise to celebrate a milestone birthday, were interviewed on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” after their return to the U.S.

In that interview, Alex Beach said that he Concordia crew “did everything in their power to help us.”

From her perspective, it was the absence of any leadership from officers that became clear from the start of the emergency. “I think that’s where the liability lies,” she said.

Costa Cruises has said the captain, Francesco Schettino, was at fault for steering the ship too close to the island; he is under house arrest in Italy.

Alex Beach described to Volden how the event started.

She and her husband were in their cabin when the lights went out. An announcement, broadcast in five languages, told passengers the ship was experiencing an electrical problem and instructed everyone to return to their cabins.

The Beaches could feel the ship beginning to list starboard, which was the side their Deck 10 cabin was on. When the order to abandon ship came, the two donned their life jackets and headed for their muster station.

But, said Alex Beach, the scene on the outside decks was chaotic, and the couple tried to board five lifeboats before finally locating one with room for the two of them.

Volden recalled how the events unfolded from his agency’s perspective.

“Early Saturday morning [Jan. 14], we had a phone call from our clients’ son, who said he had heard from his parents and they were safe, and that as soon as they were able to reach a point where they could contact us, they would,” he said.

The Beaches’ lifeboat dropped its passengers on Giglio, and the couple spent about three hours there until a ferry took them to Civitavecchia, the port city closest to Rome. Passengers were shepherded onto buses, Volden said, and didn’t know where the buses were headed.

“Our clients were taken to the Hilton at Rome Airport, and that’s where they called us from,” Volden said.

There had been Costa Cruises’ representatives at the Hilton, said the Beaches, but none was able to provide information or instructions to stranded passengers.

“All our clients wanted to do was get back home as soon as possible, so we immediately got them onto a flight back to Barcelona that night, Saturday,” Volden recalled.

The couple, meanwhile, had traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Rome that afternoon and were able to secure replacement passports.

All World Travel arranged for overnight accommodations in Barcelona and booked the couple on a Sunday morning flight back to the U.S.

Volden and the agent who had booked the Beaches on the Concordia cruise, Jackie Berube, met their clients at the airport in Albuquerque Sunday night and drove them home.

“It was a very surreal experience for us,” Volden said. “We were fortunate, though, that we were able to get them home very quickly.”

The Beaches told Volden that they had not participated in any lifeboat drill since boarding the ship in Barcelona on Jan. 9, which runs contrary to what Costa Chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi said at a press conference Jan. 16.

Foschi stated that only the passengers who boarded in Civitavecchia had received no emergency safety drill before the collision.

Queries to Costa, asking the line to clarify the discrepancy, were not immediately answered.

Volden said that his agency does very little Costa business.

“We did have some other clients booked on a future Concordia cruise, and they’ve decided not to cruise with Costa,” he said. He said he was informed by the line that the commission would be recalled on that booking.

“It isn’t the agent’s fault that those clients don’t want to go on Costa anymore,” he said.

Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.

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